Pragmatic progress and milquetoast moderation are not the same
Resisting the powers that be is not a simple thing. In the US, disagreements among those who oppose Donald Trump and his brand of reactionary politics seem almost as prevalent as the disputes between Trump supporters and opponents. The “right vs. wrong” way to defeat Trump in 2020 is a highly contested topic that breeds disunity among those who consider themselves part of the resistance.
Among the remedies being prescribed, both for the purpose of defeating Trump’s movement and uniting his opposition, is the idea of mindful resistance. Popularized by the journalist Robert Wright (a long time connoisseur of Buddhism and other eastern contemplative traditions), mindful resistance applies contemplative practices to political activism. This approach bears strong similarities to another widely misunderstood philosophical tradition - pragmatism.
At first blush, this can all sound delusional. Can hippy-dippy mindfulness and cautious pragmatism really be the proper response to the creeping threat of authoritarian strongmen with dictatorial aspirations?
Contrary to popular belief, pragmatism is not synonymous with moderation. The prototypical “moderate” is a person who opts out of resistance by dismissing all sides equally, trying to split the difference between opposing parties, flip-flopping, or simply refusing to take a meaningful stance on anything. Pragmatists, by contrast, try to find the most efficient way to do the most possible good, and get it done as quickly as possible. A pragmatist is willing to take two steps forward and one step back if need be, while an ideologue insists that unless ten steps forward can be taken, no steps should be taken at all. To the rigid ideologue, a single step forward amounts to a cowardly preservation of the status quo, even if that single step improves the lives of many people.
While “pragmatic” and “moderate” are often used interchangeably in popular commentary, pragmatism is a distinct philosophical tradition with roots in liberalism.
Pragmatism states that rather than arguing over theoretical possibilities and subjective moral preferences, people should simply look at the results of a given system or policy. For example, one could argue that communist theory is morally superior to liberal theory, but when one observes the outcomes of communist regimes compared to the outcomes of liberal democracies, the preferable system becomes crystal clear. Similarly, one could argue that pursuing a maximalist policy agenda is more principled than an incremental reform, but if that maximalist policy is less likely to work in practice, or become law at all, then pursuing it actually does less good.
A radically transformative policy goal can therefore also be a pragmatic one, assuming there is good evidence that it will work in practice. Pragmatism has no inherent relationship to how far “left” or “right” an idea is perceived to be, even when more of the pragmatic ideas seem to be coming from one side or the other. A pragmatist may well find more to like in Elizabeth Warren’s policy platform than Joe Biden’s.
Like pragmatism, mindfulness practices emphasize conscious decision-making over impulsive action. The goal of mindfulness is not to empty your mind, but to be aware of your thoughts and emotions as they appear, so that they might serve you rather than control you. Both the pragmatist and the mindfulness practitioner are careful to consider the consequences and weigh the costs against the benefits before acting.
Ideologues often criticize pragmatists, or question their motives, because they feel that the pragmatists are failing to take seriously the problems we face as a society, or that they are somehow cozying up to the people doing harm. In reality, many people choose the pragmatic route precisely because they take progress so seriously — consciously walking a more tedious path because they care so deeply about making real, tangible improvements for their loved ones and future generations. They realize that actions speak louder than words, and putting in a lot of work just for a small victory here and there is likely their best chance of changing things for the better. When those small victories accumulate, they begin to feel validated. Pragmatists are often the ones who actually achieve what ideologues only talk about achieving.
Others argue that trying to find contentment and inner-calm via mindfulness in a world full of suffering and injustice is socially irresponsible, and will inevitably lead to apathy or indifference. This risk is not totally imaginary. It is possible for a person to become so content and grounded in the present that they begin to disregard the injustices happening around them. This kind of contentment leads some privileged people to ignore politics altogether, or pretend that everything will work itself out naturally. Conversely, commitment to radical ideology carries the risk of morphing into bitter cynicism, as the ideologue watches society continue to ignore most of their ideas. This cynicism often blinds the ideologue to the observable progress that has been made, leading them to foolishly insist that “nothing ever changes.” Both apathy and cynicism can stifle progress, but cynicism is certainly less healthy for the human condition.
The idea of “mindful resistance” was never about blissfully ignoring social problems, nor is it about holding hands with demogogues and singing Kumbaya, hoping they might turn over a new leaf. From the start, it has been about empowering the individual to focus their mental energy on the right priorities.
The mindful or pragmatic activist does not compromise their values or insist that there are “good and bad on both sides” of every conflict, nor do they try to make concessions to their ideological opponents. Instead, they find the issue or issues of greatest significance to them, and try to find a way to do the most they can towards achieving those goals. They realize that different approaches may work in different circumstances, rather than insisting that there is only one acceptable means to an end.
Applying mindfulness practice to politics is especially useful online, where unproductive outrage thrives, media platforms compete for our attention, and fake news spreads like a racist wildfire. While people may have always been prone to irrational beliefs and tribalistic instincts, social media (especially Twitter) has taken these flaws in the human psyche and supercharged them.
Arguing on the internet can be addictive. While it seems shallow upon self-reflection, the momentary endorphin rush of chastising someone online can be powerful, especially for those of us whose brains are wired to seek constant stimulation. Mindfulness is a tool that can help us resist that unhealthy urge.
When ignorant people share easliy-refutable nonsense, they set us up for slam-dunk arguments that make us feel good about ourselves for a moment, until we realize that they are now doubling-down on their position because of us. Cognitive dissonance, or the mental stress one feels when something contradicts their deeply-held beliefs, can have a profound effect on the human mind. Furthermore, people with unhealthy egos, who are more likely to say inflammatory things in the first place, are also the least likely to admit their own errors, and already have mental strategies in place for dismissing evidence. Our sitting president is living proof that a know-nothing narcissist can feed upon mass outrage and use it to his advantage, as a means of distracting, deflecting, or inflaming.
The truth is, every minute that you or I have personally wasted arguing with some unpersuadable on the internet was a minute we could have devoted to volunteer activism, acquiring new knowledge and skills, or our own personal betterment and mental wellness. Even if those things have close to a net zero effect on overall societal progress, that is still more progressive than an internet argument — a rage-inducing pursuit that kills nuance and replaces it with knee-jerk tribalism. It is not about apathy in the face of injustice, but rather about using your limited time on earth in the healthiest and most productive way possible.
If reducing your online footprint or removing yourself from social media entirely seems unrealistic, consider a more pragmatic approach. Try purging the toxic people who bring out the worst side of you from your digital life. This does not have to mean cutting yourself off from everyone you disagree with, but rather, dismissing people who have nothing constructive to say, who simply want to feed their own ego by lecturing you, or take pride in being unpersuadable. Wasting time arguing with these people is not showing a commitment to the values of open dialogue and inquiry, it is an entirely counterproductive endeavor that will change no minds and only leave you feeling worse. There is no dishonor in choosing not to bang your head against a brick wall.
If you desperately feel the need to try and change the mind of someone in your life with whom you disagree, employing mindful techniques can mean the difference between a civil discussion and a fist fight. One first has to determine if a person is open to persuasion at all. A good tool for establishing this is to start every potential argument by asking, “What would it take to change your mind or make you reconsider?” and being prepared to answer that question yourself. If both parties do not have a good answer, there is no sense in going any further. If a person communicates genuine curiosity and a willingness to learn, having a face-to-face discussion with them, remaining calm, and trying to understand their concerns will make it less likely that the walls of cognitive dissonance will go up.
It is important to say here that people have no obligation to try and reason with bullies, bigots, or anyone who fails to recognize the humanity of others. These people did not reach their warped conclusions through reason, and they are highly unlikely to be reasoned out of them. This advice applies only to people who are open hearing other perspectives and being persuaded. Once a person’s words or actions have crossed so many lines, civility is a privilege they need to earn back. Finding and befriending people with high levels of openness is a much more worthy goal.
Mindfulness can help you persuade people in the real world to change their minds, rather than feeding anger and resentment online. It can keep you stay grounded in the virtues of progressive evolution, which has continuously changed society for the better, rather than allowing yourself to be seduced by the romantic idea of violent revolution, which almost universally results in more needless suffering and the neglecting of human rights. Most importantly, it can help you use your limited resources in the most practical way, resulting in more of the positive change you hope to see.
So what can you do? Simply put, whatever you can. Or, more specifically, whatever you can to improve the problems at hand in a tangible way. Like a lot of practical advice, it may sound painfully obvious, but it is much easier said than done.
If you are privileged enough to volunteer or time, your voice, your money, or what have you, take these pursuits seriously. All of them are more productive and socially conscious uses of your time than arguing with trolls, tweeting out simplistic platitudes, or sitting around lamenting how awful things are, hoping that the system will burn down and a better one will magically rise from its ashes.
Finally, acknowledge two complementary truths — things can be getting better and still need to get better. Rather than falling prey to apathy or cynicism, realize that things can continue to improve, but only if people still have the will to improve them.
Update: Everything I’ve tried to articulate here can perhaps be summed up by this piece from Bob Wright’s excellent Non-Zero blog about a recent study showing the tendency of climate change deniers to double down on their denial when lectured by progressives (especially progressive “elites”). This is where the counterintuitive idea of “action through non-action” might actually apply. Here we see a case where more good may sometimes be accomplished through disengagement.
It’s also worth noting that people who hold irrational beliefs are more likely to be persuaded by people with beliefs adjacent to their own (e.g. people on the far-right are more likely to listen to someone on the center-right than someone on the left). In this sense, political centrists (especially those coming out of the GOP) may still have a valuable role to play in the national discourse.